Southern Miss Falls 24-17 in Opener to Kentucky
HATTIESBURG, Miss. - For a long moment or three Saturday afternoon, it appeared Southern Miss might just turn back the clock and a mount a second-half comeback to take down Kentucky in a second, consecutive season opener.
But a 74-second swing late in the third quarter gave the Wildcats enough of a cushion and the Golden Eagles thwarted themselves down the stretch, falling 24-17 to Kentucky before 22,761 at M.M. Roberts Stadium.
"Tough loss, hard fought loss," Southern Miss coach Jay Hopson said. "I felt like we played well and just didn't execute on some things, had some turnovers, but I felt like as a whole we played pretty hard-nosed football."
Southern Miss did plenty right. The defense held Kentucky to 254 yards total offense, including 76 rushing. The offense took 78 snaps compared to Kentucky's 55, and gained 364 yards.
But the Golden Eagles did more than enough wrong to come up short. Three lost fumbles that led to 14 Kentucky points. A failed fake punt that set up a Wildcat field goal. A 48-yard kickoff return with a personal foul penalty that set up a 37-yard scoring drive by Kentucky. A slew of end-game penalties that short-circuited the Golden Eagles' comeback hopes.
"We lost," said redshirt junior quarterback Kwadra Griggs, who came on in the second half to complete 15 of 26 passes for 222 yards and two touchdowns, both to former Greenwood High School teammate Korey Robertson.
"It's a bad feeling. I wish we could've won it. We left some plays on the field but we're going to continue to get better.
In 2016, USM rallied for a 44-35 victory at Lexington, Ky., and after trailing 14-3 at halftime, it looked as if another comeback might be in the works.
Southern Miss went 85 yards on six plays early in the third quarter, with Griggs throwing his first career touchdown for the Golden Eagles and cutting Kentucky's lead to 14-10 with 10:40 left in the third quarter.
But a gamble with a fake punt from the Kentucky 45-yard line came up far short, and signaled the start of the 74-second swing.
The Wildcats drove far enough after the fake punt to set up Austin MacGinnis' 41-yard field goal for a 17-10 lead with 2:03 left in the quarter.
On the ensuing possession, safety Darius West knocked the ball from Griggs as he rolled left, sending it back to the USM 20-yard line. Ware scooped up the loose ball and scored to put the Wildcats ahead 24-10 with 49 seconds to play in the period.
Griggs and Roberts connected again to cap an 11-play, 75-yard scoring drive at the start of the fourth quarter, but the Golden Eagles could not get out of their own way down the stretch.
With Kentucky at its own 8-yard line with less than 5 minutes to play, an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on a first-and-15, was followed by a defensive holding call on third-and-11 from the Kentucky 31 with about 3 ½ minutes to play.
Both penalties gave the Wildcats first downs and forced Southern Miss to burn its last two timeouts.
After forcing Kentucky to punt, three penalties on the return included two, block-in-the-back flags as well as an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. That left the Golden Eagles on their own 4-yard line with 1:37 to play and no timeouts
Southern Miss played two quarterbacks, with sophomore Keon Howard starting and playing all but one snap in a first half that ended with the Golden Eagles trailing 14-3. Howard completed 7 of 14 passes for 87 yards.
"(Howard) had probably been healthy all summer and had been really solid toward the end, so we decided to go with him," Hopson said. "Right before the half, we decided to put Kwadra in and let him roll.
"Both young men did some positive things so we will just grow and continue to do better."
Robertson finished with a career-high 111 yards on seven catches and logged his first-ever multi-touchdown game with scoring catches of 42 yards in the third quarter and 26 yards in the fourth.
"Korey is a playmaker," Griggs said. "He's a big receiver. He's got a big body and incredible hands. I've never seen one person tackle Korey. We've been playing together since I was 7 years old. I've never seen one man tackle him one on one. Never."
Redshirt freshman Quez Watkins also broke the century mark receiving, grabbing four passes for 103 yards.
Allenzae Staggers, who in 2016 became just the fifth Golden Eagle to reach the 1,000-yard receiving mark in a season, was held without a catch Saturday.
"Quez, he had a couple big catches, another freshman that is going to be a special player," Hopson said. "Korey had a good game but certainly like to see the ball in Allenzae's hands a little bit more and get a few more catches but sometimes that's just the way to ball bounces."
The Wildcats, in general, bottled up the Southern Miss ground game, and specifically, senior tailback Ito Smith.
Smith, who rushed for 173 yards and a touchdown against the Wildcats last season, was limited to 37 yards rushing on 16 carries. Smith did grab a game-high and career-best nine passes for 78 yards, giving him 115 all-purpose yards.
Southern Miss dodged an early Kentucky threat when quarterback Stephen Johnson II hit tight end C.J. Conrad for a 58-yard gain to the Golden Eagles' 4-yard line.
But on first-and-goal, Snell was stripped of the ball by defensive tackle Rod Crayton and safety Tavarious Moore gobbled up the Golden Eagles' first takeaway of the season at USM's 3.
Kentucky's pass blitz got to Howard late in the first quarter with linebacker Josh Allen sacking and forcing the ball out, with defensive end Denzil Ware recovering the fumble at the USM 14.
The Golden Eagles held for two plays, but on the first play of the second quarter, Johnson scored on a third-down quarterback delay/draw to give the Wildcats a 7-0 lead.
Southern Miss responded with a 14-play, 82-yard drive that included a 47-yard pass from Howard to Watkins down to the Kentucky 5.
But USM had to settle for Parker Shaunfield's 22-yard field goal.
On the ensuing kickoff, Sihiem King raced to the USM 48, where he was tackled by his facemask. The personal foul set up Kentucky at the USM 37, and the Wildcats needed just three plays to score, with Johnson found Conrad for a 14-3 lead at halftime.